There is little disagreement across the political spectrum that there are no good answers for the United States in response to the crisis in Syria triggered by a chemical weapons attack that left more than 1,000 dead last month. In levying such a brutal attack, Syrian President Bashar Assad crossed an internationally drawn line long established as intolerable, regardless of the struggle that prompted it. Something had to be done, and in recognizing that, President Barack Obama was absolutely correct. From there, things became less clear.
By naming the “red line” that Assad crossed with his chemical attack, Obama set up the United States to respond and then set about to garner support for an ultra-targeted bombing campaign designed, essentially, to send a message that the international ban on chemical weapons still means something. Whether the bombing would stop their use was another question, as was the domestic political mess Obama stepped in by offering Congress the chance to give its nod of approval to the campaign. As soon as Obama laid down the concrete position that the United States would not abide such gruesome, long-banned practices as murdering children with nerve gas, he opened manifold questions about his bombing proposal’s efficacy, the political wrangling that would taint the process and just what on earth he was really hoping to accomplish once the bombing began. And just about everyone agreed that there was no good answer to any of these questions.
Nevertheless, in a speech to the nation Tuesday, Obama laid out his case for why a strong response to Assad’s brutality is critical and why the United States is the country for the job – but then tempered his rhetoric significantly with the developing indication that a diplomatic solution might be possible, thanks to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s involvement. In the speech, Obama reminded Americans of the country’s role as international heavyweight – “for nearly seven decades, the United States has been the anchor of global security. This has meant doing more than forging international agreements – it has meant enforcing them. The burdens of leadership often are heavy, but the world is a better place because we have borne them” – and leveraged his tenuous hope that a Putin-led diplomatic solution is possible wherein Assad turns over his chemical weapons, saying, “It’s too early to tell whether this offer will succeed, and any agreement must verify that the Assad regime keeps its commitments. But this initiative has the potential to remove the threat of chemical weapons without the use of force, particularly because Russia is one of Assad’s strongest allies.”
There is no small amount of needle-threading evident in Obama’s speech, reflecting the complicated nature of the Syrian crisis and the even-less-simple domestic political environment Obama must navigate. The solution that is unfolding between Russia and Syria – with support from the United States, Britain and France – came about inelegantly and is far from assured success. If it works, though, it will produce a result far more favorable than even a laser-focused bombing campaign initiated by the United States. For all his bluster and machismo, Putin was correct in his Thursday New York Times op-ed: “If we can avoid force against Syria, this will improve the atmosphere in international affairs and strengthen mutual trust. It will be our shared success and open the door to cooperation on other critical issues.”
It might be a long shot, but perhaps better than a U.S. shot across Syria’s bow.